There she was ... Greshams Katie Harman, Miss America 2002
- Mara Stine
- Gresham Outlook - News
Here she is, 10 years later ... wife, mother, career
On a night 10 years ago this Thursday, Sept. 22, the life of a young woman from Gresham changed in a single moment.
As Katie Harman, 21, stood thunderstruck in Atlantic City, a crown being placed on her head, locals here cheered the hometown girl who'd just been named Oregon's first Miss America.
But people across the nation also cheered.
The televised pageant was a break from the grief and despair that mired so many Americans in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001 - when terrorists struck in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.
With thousands dead and 24-hour coverage of the devastation, the nation embraced Harman in a clutch of patriotism and optimism not typically experienced by the pop-culture icon.
During a two-hour interview with The Outlook this week, Harman Ebner- now a college graduate, wife, mother of two, entrepreneur and professional singer - reflected on her crowning achievement, the highlights of her reign as Miss America during such a historic time and all that she's accomplished in the past 10 years.
'There were so many things I was able to experience at a young age that I would never have been able to see or do had it not been for Miss America,' said Harman Ebner, now 31 and living in Southern Oregon. 'That one moment changed the course of my life.'
Harman Ebner, motivated by scholarships awarded through the Miss America organization, never dreamed she'd win the crown. Shocked and humbled by the honor, she spent the first few weeks touring New York City and Washington, D.C., where terrorists attacked just 11 days before the pageant.
Considering the threat to travelers - and the fact that Miss America travels about 20,000 miles a month during her year of duty - pageant organizers asked the contestants whether they should continue with the competition. 'We were unsure what it would mean to be an American icon during a time when the United States is under attack,' Harman Ebner said. By a 2-1 margin, the young women opted to go on.
At that point, few contestants had any idea how devastating the attacks were. Cloistered for the competition, they had limited access to radio, television and phones.
It wasn't until Harman Ebner, in one of her first roles as Miss America, arrived at Ground Zero, or The Pile as it was then called, that the enormity of the national disaster - and its ripple effect on Americans - sank in.
Academically, she was well-versed for the job. The 1999 Centennial High School graduate worked with terminal breast cancer patients and was interested in a career in medicine. Death and grace under pressure were not new to her.
But the emotional impact was. It left her doubting what she as Miss America could possibly do to help the nation in such a time of turmoil.
'What is the relevance of a beauty pageant at a time when we are being crushed?' she wondered.
Then she met three rescue workers taking a break from their grueling labor at the World Trade Center. They'd just worked a 48-hour shift. Harman Ebner approached the ash-covered, weary men, shook their hands and thanked them.
'I watched you on Saturday,' one of the men said. It was his first night off since the disaster and the pageant was the only thing on television that helped him escape how he was spending every waking hour.
The encounter left Harman Ebner heartened. She discovered her true role as an American ambassador and spent the next year touring the nation, from rural towns to bustling cities, serving as a symbol of service and hope. She met the president and first lady, talk show hosts, survivors of the attacks, relatives of those who perished and the first soldiers as they deployed as part of the new war on terror in Afghanistan.
'It was a heart-wrenching and heart-warming time,' she said. 'I really appreciated being able to see the nation at its best. And I so treasure the privilege and blessing of being able to say thank you in person so soon after on behalf of all Americans.'
The year also taught her that she can't make everybody happy. Her fellow students at Portland State University balked when she was selected to give the commencement address to the graduating class of 2002. Protesters garnered media attention. They pointed out that she was not a graduate and questioned the accomplishment of winning a pageant.
She delivered her address with poise and dignity and was relieved when it was well-received. 'It was a great lesson,' she said. 'It's how you handle the naysayers that's important.'
Harman Ebner went on to graduate magna cum laude from Portland State University in 2005 with a bachelor's degree in communications with a minor in music. Thanks to scholarships she won through the Miss America Organization, 'I did it completely debt-free,' she said.
She received her degree with her husband, Tim Ebner, whom she met during her reign as Miss America, and their newborn son, Tyler, in the audience.
Within months, the family moved from East Multnomah County to Southern Oregon. Ebner's career as a fighter pilot for the Oregon Air National Guard required them to relocate. With a new baby, they opted to stay as close to family as possible instead of moving to their choice of three other locations, including Florida, England and Germany.
It was a difficult transition for Harman Ebner, a classic city slicker. But once she and her family got to know the community, they felt right at home. The discovery of online shopping also helped, she joked.
Tim is still a fighter pilot with the Oregon Air National Guard. He was a lieutenant when they met at the air base during one of her visits as Miss American. He has since been promoted to the rank of major and teaches student pilots how to fly F-15s as an instructor pilot at Kingsley Field.
'It was so much fun when he was a captain,' she said, adding that people began calling him Captain America. The family has settled into its cozy 5-acre gentleman's farm. They've remodeled a 1936 farmhouse and raise certified organic beef. Chickens and two goats - Luke and Leia - roam the land.
'We've grown into the community and can't imagine ourselves anywhere else,' she said, adding that her husband is a volunteer firefighter and she volunteers at her son's elementary school and their church. Given how common it is for military families to relocate, Harman Ebner said they're grateful to still be in Oregon and to have been here for as long as they have.
Son Tyler, 6, is now in the first grade. His perfectionist nature comes courtesy of his mother and his love of the outdoors from his dad. The boy is also observant, curious and adventurous, Harman Ebner said.
Daughter Tori, who turns 3 in January, is 'Miss Personality,' Harman Ebner said. Although mature, she's dramatic, outgoing and fearless - just like her mom.
Do they understand what that crown and opera gown in the parlor are all about?
'They're just starting to get it,' she said, adding that the nuances of it may take some time.
This month, for the 10-year anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, the entire family sat down to watch an A and E documentary on the entertainment industry's response to the terrorist attacks.
Tyler in particular sat rapt by the footage of his mother being crowned Miss America. He also paid close attention to footage from a June interview, in which she shared her thoughts on the 10-year anniversary of the attacks.
Tori is still too young to really grasp her mother's achievement. Like so many others, 'Tori's just enamored with the crown,' she said.
Harman Ebner remains active with cancer advocacy work and as a public speaker addressing poor body image among women.
Miss America struggles with poor body image?
Where does that leave the rest of us?
After a self-deprecating chuckle, she explained that the thin girl crowned Miss America is now a woman. 'I've come to grips with hips that I didn't have before,' she said. 'After having Tyler, my body was not the same. And the perfectionist side of me only made that worse.'
She came to realize that childbirth changes all women's bodies. And, like her, they all seem to struggle with general issues of self-image. Suddenly, the beauty queen began to question how to recognize true beauty and appreciate it.
Her soul searching resulted in a public-speaking campaign called True Beauty, which she delivers to organizations across the country.
In that vein, she also is the face and feet of Oh! Shoes, a women's footwear company devoted to healthy sexy shoes.
She's also representing Simon Golub and Sons, a diamond wholesaler and jewelry retailer. This weekend she'll be in Portland filming a commercial for the company.
As a creative outlet, two years ago she launched Ma Chére Finery, a line of couture children's clothing, women's bags, aprons and home decor available online through Esty.com and through specialty boutiques.
She also played a small role as Miss Provo, who sang at a campaign rally, on HBO's 'Big Love,' which revolves around a fictional fundamentalist Mormon family in Utah that practices polygamy.
Her mother, Darla Harman of Gresham, was initially horrified when Harman Ebner told her she'd be on the show. 'Oh, please tell me you're not a sister wife,' her mother pleaded.
But her career focus remains on music. She professionally debuted in 2003 with the Gold Coast Opera and has since performed nationwide.
In 2007, she launched her first solo album, 'Soul of Love,' in partnership with Portland-based pianist and composer Michael Allen Harrison.
Right now, she's preparing to perform with the Vancouver Symphony on Oct. 1 and 2. She'll also perform as part of Portland's Singing Christmas Tree - an event she's taken part in since 2002.
'That (singing) is what I always wanted to do,' she said, adding that serving as Miss America provided the professional experience and exposure to industry's inner workings to make her dream a reality.
So what's to come in the next 10 years?
'Oh, gosh if I know,' she said. 'I couldn't have predicted the last 10 years.'